IF elected, Barack Obama
might make history in more ways than one. He'll be the country's first
black president, but also - perhaps as consequentially - could be its
first transnational president.
Obama's personal history defies categorization, which makes it so
alluring. Born in Hawaii to a black Kenyan father and white Kansan
mother and raised for a time in Indonesia, Obama embodies the
crosscurrents of globalization and the remarkable dynamism of an
American society open to people of talent from any background.
Obama tells his story to emphasize its quintessential
American-ness, a tale of how an outsider - like so many before him -
came to live the American dream. This is all to the good. But at times
it's a post-nationalism that comes to the fore.
His overseas tour - punctuated by his Berlin speech before 200,000
- showed him to be a potentially powerful American emissary to the
world. It also suggested that Obama styles himself the world's emissary
to us - a discomfiting role for a would-be US president.
In Berlin, Obama called himself, unironically, a "citizen of the
world." The world, however, issues no passports, nor does it have
citizens. The world as Citizen Obama imagines it -a global community to
which we all belong - doesn't exist. Only backpacking hippies, devotees
of the Davos World Economic Forum and UN bureaucrats speak this way.
Berlin at times sounded as much like Obama's coming-out party as
the candidate of a transnational progressivism - in which global norms
are more important than sovereign nations - as his audition as
commander in chief.
In Obama's telling, a triumph of American arms and will during the
Cold War was transmuted into a victory of a united world. He railed
against "walls" of all kinds, even though walls are useful in dividing
hostile communities (see, most recently, Israel and Iraq) and, in the
form of borders, are the most basic stuff of nationhood. He addressed
"people of the world" and told them "this is our moment, this is our
time," as if the impossibly disparate people of the world can ever have
a common will.
Obama feels fit to speak for the world because of his background.
Presidential candidates once relied on the myth of the log cabin to
convey their connection to the common folks. Obama's log cabin has gone
global as a symbol of his oneness with the world's majority.
This is why he brandishes his upbringing and family as a
foreign-policy credential. In explaining why his foreign-policy
experience outstrips that of long-serving officeholders who know
foreign leaders, Obama said a few months ago, "When I speak about
having lived in Indonesia for four years, having family that is
impoverished in small villages in Africa - knowing the leaders is not
important - what I know is the people."
Transnational progressivism is closely allied to multiculturalism.
Both share a hostility to American exceptionalism and seek to rein it
in, by imposing global rules on the US and by transcending its
traditional culture (as defined by history, symbols and language).
Obama, who for so long painfully sought an identity and initially found
it in a black-nationalist church, clearly has affinities running in
Consider his gaffes: The world won't stand for us driving and
eating and air-conditioning our homes as we please. We should worry
less about immigrants learning English and more about teaching our kids
Spanish. Gun-owning, Bible-believing people in rural areas are bitter.
The flag pin is an inadequate symbol of patriotism. When Obama briefly
auditioned his own presidential seal, "e pluribus unum" got bumped.
These are all hints of Obama's instincts, but he knows he has to
check them. He has restored a flag pin to his lapel, ditched the fake
seal and in Berlin was careful to declare himself also "a proud citizen
of the United States" and defend America's global leadership. He'd be
wise to do more. In November, the world doesn't have a vote.